Saturday, May 27, 2017

Houdini At The Wintergarten

(image used with permission)
This latest adventure began when I accidentally stumbled upon the poster image above*. I realized I didn't know a lot about Houdini's time at the Wintergarten and decided to put on the Detective hat and dig up whatever I could find...

The story begins in 1900. Houdini is on tour in Europe and has just had a successful run of shows in Dresden. But trouble sprang up when Houdini was ordered to Berlin to have the police inspect his act. Kaiser Wilhem II gave the police the authority over much of German life, including regulating behavior and approving or disapproving entertainers. Houdini would have to prove he was a real handcuff king by being put to the test. He arrived in Berlin on Sept 20th and went to the police headquarters on the Alexanderplatz. In front of 300 policeman, Houdini was stripped, and placed in 5 pairs of hand cuffs, 2 pair of leg irons, some sort of finger locks and a pair of thumbscrews. According to the Kalush biography, these manacles were put on behind his back. Then a sheet was thrown over Houdini, to protect his secrets. Six minutes later, Houdini removed the sheet and held up the various manacles to show he was free. The police reluctantly gave Houdini a letter of approval. He then returned to Dresden. The manager, Herr Kammsetzer of the Central Theatre in Dresden, wanted to hold him over for a month due to the popularity of his show. Houdini was setting box office records in Dresden, and would continue to do this throughout his tour. The managers at the Wintergarten in Berlin decided that if Houdini were indeed that popular, why would they allow him to stay longer in Dresden when they could be reaping the benefits in Berlin, so they declined.

Houdini arrived in Berlin, October 1900. His appearance was marked by simple posters which read,

The Wintergarten was the go-to entertainment complex in Berlin during this time. The largest theater of it's kind in Berlin. They featured tons of European variety acts, as well as American performers. T. Nelson Downs, the King of Coins, also appeared at the Wintergarten only a few months before Houdini arrived.

The theatre was housed within the Central Hotel and seated 4000 people. The theatre opened in 1887, and in 1895 showed a cinematograph. This made the Berlin Wintergarten the very first movie theater in history. But according to the theatre's website the venue was used mainly for live performances right up until 1944.

Houdini charmed his German audiences by speaking their native language. It was the language that his parents spoke while he was growing up. But his command of the language was less than perfect and the German newspapers made note of his mixture of broken English and broken German. Still, audiences were quite forgiving and seemed thrilled that the American would go through the trouble to speak German.

During his first week at the Wintergarten, Houdini faced a challenge from an audience member who brought a unique set of thumbscrews with him. What made them unique was the fact that there were sharp pointed protrusions that gripped the thumbs so tight it was impossible to move. Houdini accepted the challenge and even though it was a painful ordeal, he did escape the thumbscrews.

While in Dresden, Houdini discovered that the Germans did not use American or British
(inside view of the Wintergarten)
handcuffs, as they thought they were too weak. Rather, they had their own, and quite a few different types and styles. According to Houdini, "using a key was out and this made escaping 1000 times more difficult." So to combat the problem, Houdini worked with German locksmiths during the days to learn the ins and outs of these German handcuffs.

One very frustrating part of his European tour were the constant imitators. Some would show up at Houdini's shows, others he would go to their shows and confront them.
One magician by the name of Hermann (not one of the famous Herrmanns), claimed to be the true and only handcuff king. Houdini got wind of this and went to see his show. When Hermann called for a committee from the audience, Houdini joined the pack. Hermann did not realize Houdini was among those onstage when he began to brag about previously beating Houdini. That's when Houdini burst forth and made himself known to the crowd and the performer. This confrontation apparently turned into nothing more than a battle of words, with Houdini claiming victory.

On page 16 of his book Handcuff Secrets, Houdini relates the story of a would-be German escapist/exposer, who made the claim of Houdini "his work is simplicity itself" Then he continued on how Houdini had his shows and contracts cancelled and he was run out of Germany. There was only one problem with that statement, it didn't happen. In fact, at the Wintergarten in Berlin, he was so popular that the management paid Ronacher's theater in Vienna, a full months salary, 4,400 Marks ($1000) to keep him at the Wintergarten in November. Kind of ironic, considering they declined a similar request from the Dresden Central Theatre back in September. And Houdini capitalized on it by having a postcard made promoting his successes during the tour. (please check out this link to the site for a follow-up to the Ronacher event)

In November, during his extended run at the Wintergarten, another German magician showed up during Houdini's performance with the hopes of taking down the true Handcuff King. He went by the stage name of Hillmar the Uncuffable, and he made the claim that he could get out of things that Houdini could not. So Houdini slapped on a pair of German made cuffs known as Berliners. The would-be challenger struggled and after several minutes cried to be released.

Houdini finished his run in Germany at the end of November, but would be back in only a few short months to tour the country again.  I want to keep this article to just the Wintergarten, but the paragraph below kind of sums of how well Houdini was doing in Germany.

T. Nelson Downs writing in the column, Our Letter Box, in the May 1902 edition of Sphinx Magazine says that "Houdini, absolutely is the biggest sensation ever made in Germany in the history of Vaudeville there." Downs mentions that Houdini won his lawsuit in Cologne against a policeman and the newspaper and both would have to retract things they said about Houdini. Houdini reaped the rewards of having won this case through incredible advertising that followed. Mr.Downs also mentions that Houdini was booked solid for the next two years, "when I believe he will retire for a season to count his money."

In April 1903, Houdini returned to the Wintergarten and picked up where he left off, with massive crowds. According to a report in the Sphinx magazine May 1903, Houdini was presenting all manner of escapes, including a chair escape, a straitjacket escape, and being placed inside a packing crate or what they called, an ordinary dry goods box. The box was then nailed shut and wrapped and tied with ropes. Yes, the master of escape somehow freed himself without disturbing the ropes and leaving all the nails intact.

Also, on page 33 of the May 1903 Sphinx Magazine, is a reprint of a letter from Houdini to Harry S. Thompson. In the letter, Houdini mentions a number of interest facts related to his time in Germany. One of the things he is having to deal with are the exposers. It was one thing to have to deal with imitators, but the exposers were worse. There were apparently, a number of people, in every city he went to, that were exposing his effects. In Dresden, he had to contend with a man named Cirnoc, who was hired by a rival theatre to expose his handcuff escapes and his trunk trick. When Houdini arrived in Berlin to perform at the Wintergarten, the Circus Shumann, hired a clown to expose the trunk trick. It was all in an effort to hurt the business at the Wintergarten. But despite the exposures, Houdini prevailed.

Just a side note on the Wintergarten. It remained a popular variety entertainment house until June 21st 1944 when it was totally destroyed in an Allied bombing attack. In 1992, the Wintergarten reopened at a different location. It still thrives today as a live performance venue and they have over the years featured magic programs in their line ups.

*The story of this poster is interesting. It is in the current collection of Norm and Lupe Nielsen. Lupe tells me she believes the poster was from around 1903. They obtained the poster from a small magic poster collector in Salt Lake City. That gentleman purchased it many many years before, and recognized it was rare back then. A second copy appears on the background of George Goebel's book, so she believes that he has a copy. Two known copies in all the world? Seems to be the case. I have a feeling however, that the poster might be from 1900, as the photo used in the illustration dated to this time period. Also, I read that the Wintergarten had postcards printed with Houdini in chains that they passed out during his extended run in November 1900. It's possible this image was also on the postcards. But regardless of it being 1900 or 1903, it's still a fantastic and rare poster. THANK YOU Lupe, for letting me use the poster in the article and for the background information on how you came upon the poster.

THIS poster is available as a reproduction from Nielsen Magic. To purchase the poster please follow this link

Friday, May 26, 2017

Adelaide Herrmann For Kids

I stumbled upon this book quite by accident. I found it while searching ebay for vintage magic props. What is it? It's a new children's book all about the life of Adelaide Herrmann by Mara Rockliff.

I have most great things to say about the book. First, it's wonderful to see a book about a different magician (other than Houdini) for the general public and especially kids. Second, it's wonderful to read about a female magician who deserves all the press she can get, both in her time and in ours! Third, the illustrations are phenomenal.

But sadly, there is one negative. It's not something that hindered my reading or my purchase of the book, but I'm a magic fan. They've included the story of the Bullet Catch routine. And though it's historically accurate, schools, libraries and parents are hyper politically correct these days and this one single thing could prevent them from purchasing or reading the book, which is unfortunate I must say. Because I love the book.

The author did a fantastic job covering the life of Adelaide Herrmann. You also get a glimpse of ole Alexander in there as well. And there is a tip of the hat to the two leading Herrmann historians of today, James Hamilton and Margaret Steele. This book came out in 2016, so James would have seen it and I'm sure he loved it. For those unaware, James passed away this week from liver cancer.

If you want to pick up this book, I found my copy on eBay, and I know there are other copies available there as well. The price runs just under $20.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

An Expose on the King of Card Act of Harry Houdini

(Library of Congress)

Long before Houdini was The Handcuff King, he was The King of Cards. No doubt a moniker that he gave himself, rather than one which was awarded him. But it has always made me wonder, what was IN this card act of his? So I decided to try and delve into what Houdini might have done in this act. After extensive research, the last book I looked at was Pat Culliton's HOUDINI: The Key. This book has a rather large section on Houdini's card work, and also has a lot of the references I dug up on my own. Had I been home at the time, his book would have been my first book to check. I would encourage you to check out Pat's book, as he describes many of the 'moves' or sleights in detail, that I am going mention, but glance over. Pat did an incredible job describing the card work of Houdini, but I still have material to add!

Let me start by saying I believe Houdini falls into the category of card manipulator rather than what we think of today as a cardician. HOUDINI's Fabulous Magic by Walter Gibson, confirmed my suspicion of Houdini's card act. Here is an excerpt, "Being a showman, he aimed for the spectacular in his card work, so while he was well versed in more subtle sleights, he stressed card flourishes in his public performances." It's very clear by viewing existing video of Houdini presenting card flourishes that the man had skills! There are some moves he was known to do that seem impossible today, this to me is thrilling!

Let's begin with Houdini's King of Cards Poster. This poster was made in 1895, and was produced by the National Printing and Engraving Company of Chicago. Though it has been reproduced numerous times by different sources, I had heard the original is fairly scarce.

In the upper left hand corner we see Houdini executing a technique called 'Ribbon Spreading on the Arm'. The effect of the flourish is this, cards are spread over the forearm, which is held in a horizontal position. The cards go from the bend of the arm right to the fingers. By bending the fingers, you can cause the cards to all turn over. The effect can end there, or the magician can use the other hand to push the cards forward and remove them from the arm. Or in a more grandiose move the magician can jerk for the forearm upwards slightly causing the entire spread of cards to come off the arm slightly, then in rapid succession, the opposite hand pushed the 'floating spread' back together and catches all the cards in one hand, all while the cards are 'in the air'. It looks more impressive than it reads. On the poster, Houdini is doing the move with both arms at the same time. Is this possible? Pat Culliton in his book HOUDINI: The Key, has the likely solution to the image and that was that Houdini had an assistant who could spread the cards on the other arm before Houdini began his manipulations. However, I would not put it past Houdini to be able to accomplish this on his own. Houdini had one other twist with the 'spreading on the arm move'. This fortunately has been captured on video for posterity, he would spread the cards on the back of the arm, and then with an upward jerk cause the cards to rise above his arm slightly, about two inches or so. He would then rotate his forearm to the other side and recatch the cards on his arm.

There is a move related to the 'Spreading of Cards on the Arm' and that is when you take one or two or three packs of cards and place them on the arm and catch them in succession, one after the other, after having thrown them into the air. The fact that Houdini presented this feat was revealed in Magic Without Apparatus by Camille Gaultier. 

Next, the lower right hand image on the poster has Houdini doing fancy one handed cuts, one in each hand. The one handed cuts that Houdini demonstrates may just be his own creation. There are numerous one handed cuts like the Charlier Pass and the One Handed Swing Cut, and today with the explosion of 'Card Artistry' I would imagine there may be a hundred different ways to cut cards in one hand. But the Houdini method seems to be his own. If anyone has information to the contrary, please let me know and I will gladly correct this part.

An interesting point about the original photograph that this illustration was made from is that the words 'King of Cards' are written right below his hands. I should also point out, that Houdini is doing these cuts at the same time in both hands! That is impressive!

This took place in 1895, so no doubt he had a couple years of hard work and dedication put into learning these difficult flourishes. In the period between 1896-1897, when Harry and Bess were doing just about anything to stay in show business, Houdini actually performed an entire act as CARDO-King of Cards.  This came as a surprise to me when I first read it. But I must have seen it in print numerous times in the past and it never sunk in. 'CARDO' is mentioned in the Silverman biography, in the Kalush biography, in the Randi/Sugar biography and also in Masters of Mystery, page 40.  The original source of the Cardo reference comes from a letter from Bess to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle dates December 16, 1926. This document is housed in the Harry Ransom Center. But there is an even earlier reference to CARDO which comes from the Kellock biography, that has Erich Weiss using the name at 15 years of age, before he was HOUDINI.

HOUDINI's Fabulous Magic tips another exciting flourish from Houdini's card act and that was his Card Scaling or Boomerang Card routine. He had two versions that he could present and both are quite impressive. Both involved tossing/spinning a high into the air and having it return like a boomarang. In one version the card would return to the deck. Walter Gibson points out in Houdini's version, he would open the cards like a one handed as the spinning card returned to the deck! But I think I like the other version better. Houdini would scale the card in the air as before, but upon return he would pick up a large pair of scissors and cut the returning card in half.  This very effect was presented by Ricky Jay in his show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants.

The next flourish from Houdini's act is his 'Back and Front Palm routine'. For a long time I had heard this move was credited to Dr. James Elliott. Knowing Houdini wrote the book Elliott's Last Legacy, I decided to check that book out to see what interesting tidbits might be found within. Houdini states that both he and Dr. Elliott both learned the move from magic dealer Otto Maurer. He also reveals in the introduction to the book that his dime museum work is where he passed his 'college of experience' and would often have a deck of cards in his hands from 10am to 10pm. He would present 9 to 14 shows in a day, but during Christmas and New Years, actually gave 44 shows, each lasting only ten minutes each. Among that ten minutes was his routine with the 'front and back palm'.

Houdini claimed that his ability to do the 'forward and back palm' with 32 cards is what gained him the title of 'King of Cards'. He also apparently at some time claimed to have originated it, but again, he himself revealed that he learned it from Otto Maurer in the 1890s. But by 1899, it appears Houdini was done with the move. In fact, for the time he was done with cards altogether. In the December 24th, 1899 edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer there is a large illustration titled, "Houdini's Card Trick Exposed". And it was Houdini himself who posed for the photos that were used to do the exposure! (Thanks to both Pat Culliton and Chuck Romano for finding this article). Oh, why would Houdini expose this trick you ask? Earlier in the year, Houdini would meet Martin Beck who would tell Houdini he could book him into the Orpheum circuit if he would drop the magic and just do the escapes and the Metamorphosis. So by Dec 1899, Houdini had no need for cards. Though, he would bring them back in 1925.

More proof Houdini was done with cards, is this expose on Card Cheating by Houdini, that appeared in another newspaper. In this article Houdini is called 'the noted Austrian sleight of hand artist'. This is from the Akron Daily Democrat, July 8, 1899.

I'd like to stick with the material that Houdini used in his stage Card Act. However, given that there are a number of references to Houdini's card work (close-up style) in other books, I want to include those here also.

On page 94 of The Art of Magic by T. Nelson Downs, he describes Houdini's Torn Card Trick. This trick also appears in Magic Without Apparatus by Camille Gaultier. In addition, the latter book also contains Houdini's Pass. There is also reference to Houdini's Flourish Routine. However, despite my best efforts I can't actually find anything in the text that says 'Houdini's Flourish Routine'. I have the digital edition of the book and it links to the page with the Ribbon Spread On the Arm. This is clearly 'part' of Houdini's Flourish Act, but not the entire thing.

One Houdini Flourish that Gaultier does mention is really out of this world. It's the Springing of Cards, but done with one hand rather than two. I'm having a hard time imagining such a thing. In HOUDINI The Key, there is a slow motion image of Leslie P. Guest demonstrating the One Handed Spring. There were  people who witnessed Houdini doing it. So it must be a real thing!

In Elliott's Last Legacy by Houdini, he again includes his Houdini Pass. But you'll also find two other sleights by Houdini. One of them is his take on the Top Change and the other is a clever Color Change which might possibly have been included in his manipulation act.

In HOUDINI The Key, Pat Culliton describes Houdini's Self-Extracating Card as well as a Card Stabbing routine that first appeared in the October 7th, 1899 edition of The Denver Times.
Pat also mentions that 'Houdini took delight in performing the Card on the Ceiling.'

Finally, in the Sphinx May 1909 there is an article by Dr. James Elliott on The Frazier Card Pass. It is Elliott's belief that the Houdini Card Pass is the same as the Frazier Card Pass.

Getting back now to Houdini's King of Cards Act, I did find a very cool reference to Houdini's Giant Card Star on page 152 of Houdini's Fabulous Magic by Walter Gibson. Gibson describes the Houdini Giant Card Star and why it was so amazing, as opposed to the standard Card Star which had fallen out of favor in the 1880s.

In the Houdini Giant Card Star, Houdini would show a jumbo deck of cards and then several cards were named by members of the audience. The Card Star was then hung by ribbons on the stage. Then Houdini would throw the jumbo cards at the card star and the 5 selected cards would instantly appear on the five points of the star. Why is this different from the standard card star? The introduction of the Jumbo Cards which were 4 times as big as a regular deck of cards. When they appeared on the five points of the star they were so large it was impossible to figure out where they came from. From what Walter Gibson had to say, this trick even fooled the magicians of the day. On page 155, there is a photo of Douglas Geoffrey (Hardeen Jr) holding Houdini's Card Star. And truthfully, if you know how the standard Card Star works, the image of the Houdini version seems impossible.

The image of Houdini to the left shows Houdini holding jumbo cards as well as regular cards. This is a promotional shot for the 3-1 Show, Houdini's big show that he would take out in 1925-26. It seems very possible that the Houdini Giant Card Star would make a unique conclusion to the Houdini King of Cards Act. The booklet Programmes of Famous Magicians by Max Holden seems to prove that Houdini concluded his card portion with the Card Star. Was there more to the act? Possibly, but I have not yet uncovered anything else. For now, enjoy the short video of a 52 year old Houdini presenting Card Flourishes. The history of the video is covered expertly over at

Incidentally, my interest in this subject began when I read about a card routine Houdini had in his notes called Half in Half. The routine appears in Houdini's Magic by Walter Gibson. The routine is an unusual card to pocket sort of routine, and after having tried it out on a live audience, I can attest to it's strength. After this, I wanted to see what else Houdini did in the cards department and that is when I realized I didn't really know what his 'King of Cards' act consisted of.

My conclusion is this:
Houdini King of Cards Act

Various One Handed Cuts/both hands
Spreading the Cards on the Arms and Catching
Front and Back Palm Manipulations
Springing the Cards With both Hands, Springing The Cards One With One Hand, The Waterfall
Card Scaling/Boomarang Card
The Giant Card Star

Sunday, May 7, 2017

HOUDINI Takes DC 2017

The ObscuraDay Event called Houdini Takes DC was a huge hit yesterday! They sold out, and I think they might have even over sold, which was fine by me! The event took place at the Tivoli Magic Shop in Washington DC. It's a a beautiful shop, though not really a magic shop. Check out the link if you'd like to learn more about them. They had a nice room for us and to start was Magic Historian and Collector Ken Trombly. Let me say, Ken has an INCREDIBLE collection. The fact he is willing to bring these priceless posters to events is beyond generous. Ken had 4 major posters and some smaller broadsides, as well as a folder filled with postcards and photographs.

Ken gave an overview of Houdini's life by showing the various items he had that
Ken Trombly
related to those periods. The audience sat riveted during his talk. He really delivered a great deal of information, and being able to see the actual posters and other memorabilia was the icing on the cake. I stood in the back trying to keep my big mouth shut and not interrupt. He spoke for a little over 30 minutes and showed some items that would have stunned a seasoned magic collector let alone a room full of history enthusiasts and lay people.

There was a break, for cherry pie ( a favorite of Bess Houdini and they served it at the previous Houdini event here as well).

Then they introduced me. I was supposed to do a show but ended up spending my time doing a mixture of magic and telling stories, some related to Houdini, some related to escapes, some related to associates of Houdini's. For example, I shared the story of Harry Cooke, a mentor of Houdini's and an individual who was present during the Lincoln assassination. I shared a story of a woman who found herself caught up in a haunted house and a seance. And I shared a ton of stories about Houdini. I tried to stay within the area that Ken had set during his talk but elaborated on various stories. I have found when talking about Houdini, I can go on forever, but I had to stay within the 30+ minute format....(I might have gone a little over).

Carnegie about to escape from Handcuffs.
The first piece of magic I presented was a newly discovered Houdini card trick. I say, newly discovered because I was unaware of it, lol. I found it in one of the Walter Gibson books and the trick comes from Houdini's notes. It's a strange sort of transposition trick with a card and it played really well. I followed this with my version of Cards Across, just to fill out the 'Houdini King of Cards' portion of my talk.

Next I moved into his early escapes, handcuff escapes specifically. And I went on to present two escapes, one from a pair of police issue regulation Smith and Wesson cuffs. The other from a pair of ungimmicked Hamburg 8 cuffs.

I wanted to give people a feeling for Houdini beyond just the regular stories, so I threw in the story of Harry Cooke, and how they were associated. I always thought their connection was because they were both escape artists. But I know believe that their connection was, #1 because of Cooke's Anti-spiritualist crusade years before Houdini was born, and #2, Cooke's connection to Abe Lincoln, who was Houdini's boyhood idol.

I shared the story about Cooke being summoned to Washington to demonstrate his ability to free himself from ropes. And here, I took the opportunity to present a rope escape.  I chose to use a technique found in Houdini's book, Magical Rope Ties & Escapes. The technique allows for an almost instantaneous escape from the bonds. In truth, Cooke had been tied up with 100 ft of rope and still escapes in seconds. I had 100 ft of rope on hand, but was saving it for later but ran out of time.

The closing routine was a Spirit Slate routine with a story. A true story? Sort of. Aspects of the story are true, but I do take liberties, it is a show after-all. The story is an emotional one, and I use it to help people understand the deep connection that people have when they see mediums....and also WHY Houdini was so angered by the whole thing because he knew the mediums were fake and playing off the emotions of the grieving.

At the end, I answered a few questions, spoke with numerous people after the program and packed up. All in all, I'd say the day was a HUGE success. I'd like to thank Julie Siegel for her great work AGAIN, and all her fellow Obscura staff. Thank you for inviting me to be part of your event! Also, I'd like to thank Tivoli Magic Shop and 826DC for letting us use their incredible space.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A NEW Houdini Poster?!

Well prepare yourselves, I believe we have a previously unknown Houdini  poster to add to the mix. I don't recall seeing this in any book. If it has been in a book, then this will likely be the first time you're seeing it in color. And the most amazing thing of all, this was purchased on eBay!

The poster is in the collection of Ken Trombly. Ken was one of the guest speakers at the ObscuraDay event in D.C. today. Ken has a HUGE collection of Houdini items, posters galore, and photos and postcards as well. He's got a number of things I'd like to write about in the future, so I'm going to keep quiet on the rest. But he told me this poster below was purchased on eBay....according to Ken, "back when eBay was good." So it was a number of years ago. I'll be writing MORE about Ken and his talk, but I wanted you to see this before anyone beat me to it! :)

I would encourage you to follow Ken on Instagram.
and while your at it, follow ME there too

UPDATE: Joe Notaro alerted me to the fact that not only is this NOT a new discovery, but it's also appeared in three different books, and one of those was in color.  Well, lol, it was NEW to me, lol. I do appreciate the feedback though. I love to hear from folks so anytime anyone wants to comment, please do.

 (image used with Ken Trombly's permission)